Preview & Chat: The Oklahoma City Thunder

Darius Soriano —  March 29, 2012

Records: Lakers 31-19 (3rd in West), Thunder 38-12 (1st in West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 105.0 (15th in NBA), Thunder 110.4 (1st in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 102.2 (10th in NBA), Thunder 103.4 (12th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Ramon Sessions, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Thunder: Russell Westbrook, Thabo Sefolosha, Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins
Injuries: Lakers: Jordan Hill (doubtful); Thunder: Daequan Cook (out), Eric Maynor (out)

The Lakers Coming in: The news cycle is still stuck on Andrew Bynum’s three pointer and subsequent benching, but there are actually bigger, team-wide issues to delve into with the Lakers. For instance, their decline in defense since the trade deadline. Per ESPN Stats and Information, since the trade deadline the Lakers have been the 20th best team in terms of defensive efficiency. They’ve given up about 6 points more per 100 possessions after the trade deadline than before it and this fact needs to be rectified sooner rather than later. Recently they’ve given up too many open jumpers and their inability to slow dribble penetration has been a primary reason. Guards and wings are getting into the lane too easily and it’s forcing big men to help and the defense to collapse, with rotations back to shooters not happening quickly enough. And when the bigs don’t help in time, the Lakers are giving up too many layups and even too many put-back attempts – which is counterintuitive since the bigs who aren’t helping should be in position to secure defensive rebounds.

The news isn’t all bad since the trade deadline, however. Over at, John Schuhmann has crunched some numbers on the Lakers since acquiring Sessions and there are a lot of positives. You should read the entire thing, but this note on how big an impact he’s had while on the floor is quite telling:

The Lakers have outscored their opponents by 12.0 points per 100 possessions and by 56 points total with Sessions on the floor over the last seven games. With him on the bench, they’ve been outscored by 11.6 points per 100 possessions and by 38 points total. That discrepancy is about equal to the difference between the Bulls (+9.5) and the Bobcats (-14.3). So while his team hasn’t shot up the standings upon his arrival, Sessions has clearly been doing his part.

Again, go read the entire thing but numbers like these should be encouraging – especially if the Lakers can regain some of their focus on defense.

The Thunder Coming in: OKC has won four in a row (including a drubbing of the Heat on national TV this past Sunday) and seven of their last ten. They’re playing like a well-oiled machine, stopping teams defensively and putting the gears to them on offense with a multi-pronged attack that’s extremely difficult to slow down, much less stop. Against the Heat, they went away from some of their isolation sets and preyed on Miami’s over-aggressive defense by busting out a nice action built off on-ball screens that left their big men uncovered for easy finishes. Needless to say, it’s plays like that one and their growing maturity and confidence that make them one of the league’s best teams and true contender to win the championship.

Of course, this team also made a move recently by acquiring Derek Fisher after he was bought out by the Rockets. I’ve said a lot about Derek since he was traded at the deadline to the Rockets, but with him coming back to Staples as a visitor tonight, allow me a few more words….

Tonight will be strange for fans and Lakers players alike. Fisher’s play had diminished in the past few seasons but his leadership and presence had immense value to the Lakers. Having him return as a foe – and a member of a top flight team – is…strange. I would have preferred Fisher retire a Laker, but for all intents and purposes, he’ll be a Laker for life for many of us. When he comes into the game tonight, I’ll be clapping for him from my living room just as fans will be cheering for him from the stands. That said, once the ball goes live he’s a member of the other team. As Kobe said last week, it’d be disrespectful of Fisher – as a competitor – to take it easy on him and not try to “destroy” him. So while Fish will always have a place in my heart for all he’s done as a player that’s given me such joy, tonight I want him to leave a loser at the hands of the Lakers.

Thunder Blogs: Daily Thunder is a great site that does an excellent job covering that team. Check out their work.

Keys to game: Because there’s so much ground to cover in this section, I’m going to bullet points for this section:

  • Durant vs. Ron will play a major role in how this game’s determined. In the last match up between these teams, Durant went off for 33 points. He made 12 of his 22 FGs, but an even crazier 10 of his 14 two-point shots. He was able to create off the dribble and get into the paint to finish, or use the threat of his quickness to get up jumpers just out of reach of a good challenge from his man. In the past, Ron’s physical defense and ball denials bothered KD, but in the last game he shrugged off those tactics and still got his points fairly easily. If the Lakers are to win tonight, Ron will need to be better as will Barnes. The Laker bigs will also need to be more aware in how they help on KD off the ball, as they must help Ron and Matt navigate screens and serve as deterrents to the easy passes that KD can catch on the move to set up easy (for him) looks. Of course they can’t over-help as they may fall victim to the play OKC put on Miami, but they’ll need to be smart and disciplined when defending off the ball.
  • Who will guard Westbrook? In the past, Kobe’s guarded Russ and given him a modified version of the Rondo treatment by laying off him and inviting the jumpshot. However, a lot of that match up was dictated off the Lakers not having a PG with enough quickness to stay with Russ in either the open or half court. With Sessions on board, it will be interesting to see who this match up falls to, because if Kobe is on Russ he’ll be expending a lot of energy chasing one of best athletes and offensive weapons in the entire league at any position. I’d much rather prefer to see if Sessions is up to the task and turn to Kobe in crucial possessions if needed, rather than have Kobe chase him around whenever they share the court.
  • The Laker bigs must play big tonight. Ibaka and Perkins are known for their defense, but both Pau and Bynum can have success against them with disciplined offensive attacks. Ibaka is a great shot blocker, but he can be susceptible to shot fakes and quick, assertive moves. Pau can take what the D gives him (which will be his jumper) but he will need to also go to the post for optimal success, and that means dealing with Ibaka’s shot blocking prowess. Quick hooks and power drives when turning and facing will serve Pau well tonight. As for Bynum, he has an advantage over Perkins and has had one nearly every time they’ve faced off when both were completely healthy. He can use his power game and counters to get good shots in close whenever he’s isolated on the block. However, he must also do his work early in possessions by fighting for position before he has the ball. The defense will likely dig down on him to make him a passer, but he should use those opportunities to make a quick pass back to the perimeter and then re-post quickly to get even better position. I know that Bynum’s been the subject of criticism lately, but his play tonight can be a major factor in making that all yesterday’s news. He must simply embrace it and go hard.
  • Kobe will face off against an old foe in Thabo tonight. They’ve gone head to head many times over the years (dating back to when Sefolosha was in Chicago), and in the past year or so I’ve noticed that Kobe’s gotten a much better feel for how he likes to attack the rangy defense offered. In the last game, Thabo didn’t play and Kobe had to deal a lot more with Durant and the underrated Harden on D. With Thabo back in the fold, expect Kobe to have a better plan of attack than he showed the last game. He’ll need it too, because without an efficient night from Bean the Lakers will be hard pressed to win this game.
  • Speaking of Harden, the Lakers must slow him down tonight. He got going in the last game and blew the game open with his shot making and creativity off the bounce. The Lakers didn’t have anyone to really guard him, but I’m hoping with Brown tweaking his substitutions we’ll get to see Barnes on the Beard more often tonight, with Ron still in the game to guard Durant. Harden’s a crafty penetrator and is an excellent P&R ball handler who’s proven to have great chemistry with Nick Collison when both are in the game. Whoever is on him will need to make him shoot jumpers off the dribble, with the back line of the defense ready to step up early and contest shots without fouling. Harden is a master of drawing contact so that last point is very important. Sending him to the FT line for easy points can really get him going and must be avoided.
  • Lastly, I’d like to see Sessions more involved on offense tonight than he was on Tuesday against the Warriors. In that game he was a bit tentative and the Lakers seemed to purposefully go to more big man and wing screen actions to get Kobe, Pau, and Andrew going. Tonight, though, Sessions’ speed and ability to get into the lane and finish or draw fouls once there will be a needed ingredient to a win. Despite his reputation as a strong defensive guard, Westbrook can be taken advantage of on that side of the ball and it will be up to Sessions to do so. Smart drives and cuts, change of pace plays, and open court chances will all be available tonight should he look for them. Here’s hoping he does.

If there were ever a measuring stick game, this is it. The Thunder lead the West and are the favorites to represent the conference in the Finals come June. The Lakers used to be the team that was thought of that way, but last year’s sweep and up and down play this year makes that no longer be the case. The other day, Kobe said that he doesn’t understand why people don’t consider the Lakers a title contender and that people seem to discount them too often. That can start to change with a win tonight.

Where you can watch: 7:30PM start time on TNT. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710AM.

Darius Soriano

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